The Villans Prevail in International Friendly at Toyota Park
The Chicago Fire fell 1-0 to Aston Villa on Saturday evening in front of 16,388 at Toyota Park. The home side put forth a strong effort, but it was a well-earned victory for the Villans, who showed their quality throughout the night.
The Fire fielded a mixture of regular starters and backups in their starting XI, and Villa appeared to do the same -- although, as new manager Paul Lambert admitted in his press conference, it's too early to say who will be starting when their season begins. At any rate, even though last year's top scorer Darren Bent was left out with a minor injury, the Villa lineup still had plenty of talent.
But the Men in Red were not scared, and proved that right off the bat -- in the 3rd minute captain Arne Friedrich delivered a crunching tackle on Villa's Gabriel Agbonlahor. He was whistled for a foul, but it sent a message that the Fire were playing to win.
Still, Villa's quality would show through, as the visitors held much of the run of play. Their first real chance came in the 12th minute, as Agbonlahor crossed from the left and midfielder Stephen Ireland hit his sliding shot wide.
The 19th minute saw both sets of fans participate in a gesture of good sportsmanship, standing and applauding for Villa's number 19, captain Stilyian Petrov. Petrov, known to supporters as "Stan," was diagnosed with acute leukemia last year.
On the field, the Villans were seeing much more of the ball. Agbonlahor was again the danger man, forcing a nice diving save out of Chicago keeper Jay Nolly in the 25th minute.
Villa were not to be denied though, and the goal came soon after -- from who else, Agbonlahor. In the 29th minute, right back Chris Herd was given too much space on the right wing and the Australian swung in a beautiful cross that Agbonlahor powered into the goal with a header.
Both teams had chances in the next 15 minutes, but the scoreline remained the same at halftime. Truthfully, it was a deserved lead for Villa, who had outshot the Fire 10-2 at that point.
The second half saw two yellow cards within the first five minutes, Fabian Delph picking one up in the 48th minute and the Fire's Daniel Paladini following him into the referee's book a minute later. But with both teams making mass substitutions, the match lost much of it's rhythm. The Fire continued to search for an equalizer, mostly off of the counterattack, but it was difficult with Villa's dominance in possesion. The visitors' defense was also top-notch, limiting the home side to very few clear scoring chances.
The Fire did have a few decent opportunities right at the end of the match, with Patrick Nyarko forcing a corner in the 89th minute, but the Men in Red could not convert. Jalil Anibaba also had a decent shot with what turned out to be the last kick of the match, although it did not trouble Villa's substitute keeper (and Chicago-area native) Brad Guzan. The match ended 1-0 to the Villans.
Still, Chicago coach Frank Klopas was pleased with the match overall.
"I'm happy with the effort of the players, and we walked away with no injuries," said Klopas. "Obviously we always want to go on the field and win. That didn't happen, but I thought that the players gave everything they had, so I was happy."
There was also good news for the team from Birmingham. Agbonlahor had gone down with a leg injury in 64th minute and had to be stretchered off -- a coach's worst nightmare in a friendly match. But Lambert said after the match that the injury appeared to be minor.
"I think [he'll be out] about a couple of weeks," he said. "I didn't really get much chance to speak with him just yet. I've spoken to the medical people, and they think it's not too bad... that's football. I thought his all-around game was excellent.
"It's great for us," he said on the match in general. "It's another win."
As for the players, Nyarko said it was a great learning experience to play against this kind of competition.
"It's amazing being on the field with these guys," he said. "I really enjoyed it."